BAGHDAD -- The number of Iraqi police killed in guerrilla attacks is approaching the number of US soldiers killed during the occupation, evidence of both the Iraqis' increased role and the insurgents' strategy of targeting them, military officials said yesterday.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted the losses on a visit to Baghdad to review security in the occupied nation. "There have been a lot of Iraqi policemen and women killed in the last six to eight months," he said.
As of Friday, 263 US soldiers had died from hostile action since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat operations over. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the deputy operations director for coalition forces in Iraq, said the number of Iraqi police killed approaches and may have exceeded that figure. He had no precise figure.
American officers in Iraq told Rumsfeld the chief threats to stability in the country, once guerrillas dedicated to restoring Saddam Hussein to power, is evolving to suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks. Some are homegrown; others are arriving from outside Iraq.
Rumsfeld said Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Iran, should be pressured to interdict fighters trying to cross into Iraq.
"Syria and Iran have not been helpful to the people of Iraq. Indeed, they've been unhelpful," Rumsfeld said. "They've allowed people to move from their countries to Iraq to engage in terrorist activities against the Iraqi people."
Asked whether those countries' governments were condoning the infiltrators or simply not preventing them, Rumsfeld responded with a litany of criticisms of both countries.
"We know that Iran has harbored Al Qaeda," he said, referring to senior operatives who crossed into Iran from Afghanistan more than a year ago, many of whom the Iranians said they captured and deported. "We know they've had people moving across the border. They're certainly aware of that; they have border patrols. We know that Syria has been a hospitable place for escaping Iraqis."
"Let there be no doubt, the powers that be in Syria and Iran are not wishing the free Iraqi people well," Rumsfeld said.
It was not the first time Rumsfeld has accused the two countries of actions that harm US interests in Iraq, although other US officials have said there is little sign of direct Syrian or Iranian meddling. Neither country has had a history of friendship with Iraq, especially under Hussein.
A senior US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week the Americans believe that Iran has a presence in Iraq, but it is not threatening and is in line with what would be expected of a neighboring country. US officials do not see the Iranian presence as a threat to the development of democracy in Iraq, the official said. Iraq's majority population belongs to Islam's Shi'ite sect, the same as Iran's, but the Iranians are of Persian stock, not Arab like the Iraqis.
The origins of those fighting the insurgency inside Iraq remain murky, particularly the extent of their relationship with the Al Qaeda network. Some are thought to be from the native Ansar al-Islam group; others are thought to be supporters of the deposed president, Hussein, who have joined Islamic extremist groups, and others might be from Al Qaeda itself.
"We've seen a real step up on the part of these professional terrorists from Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam conducting suicide attacks," L. Paul Bremer III, chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, told reporters after meeting with Rumsfeld.
The best evidence of terrorist ties is in the nature of the attacks and the tactics and weapons used, Kimmitt said. The suicide bombings and other tactics are similar to those used by Al Qaeda and related organizations, Kimmitt said.
US officials say their adversaries are targeting American forces less frequently, turning their weapons against police and civil defense stations and trying to foment interethnic and religious violence.